By Rob Moritz
Arkansas News Bureau
New policies designed to improve the process for deciding when to release parolees from custody are a step in the right direction but other major changes might be needed, some lawmakers say.
A legislative committee is scheduled to review current state parole policies against the backdrop of three investigations into the state Department of Community Correction’s handling of Darrell Dennis, a 47-year-old parolee accused of committing murder while free despite multiple felony arrests.
The Joint Performance Review Committee is scheduled to meet Thursday.
Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, suspects "wholesale changes" may be needed to correct what he sees as an obviously flaw in the system.
"I think we’re going to look at this case specifically, we’re going to talk about the broader issue. Broader problems exist in parole," Sanders said last week.
After being released on parole in 2008 after serving time for aggravated robbery, Dennis was arrested more than two dozen times, including arrests for absconding and several felonies, without having his parole revoked.
He was released from the Pulaski County jail on May 8 after parole officials decided not to revoke his parole, telling him he would be sent to a technical violator’s center in Malvern. Less than two days later, 18-year-old Forrest Abrams was found dead at a Little Rock intersection. On May 22, Dennis was arrested and charged in the slaying. His parole was revoked on June 5.
Gov. Mike Beebe ordered an internal DCC investigation of its handling of Dennis’ case. The state Board of Corrections also is examining what happened, and the Arkansas State Police is conducting an administrative investigation into what happened and how another breakdown might be avoided.
On July 1, DCC Director David Eberhard resigned and the next day Sheila Sharp, a long-time deputy director of the state Department of Correction, was named interim director.
Over the past few weeks, the state prison board passed a series of mandates aimed at improving the disciplining and monitoring of parolees accused of new crimes or parole violations. Some of the mandates actually prohibit parolees from being released if they are awaiting a court-ordered competency hearing, consistently fail to report for meetings or hearings, and if they are charged with felonies, violence or sex-related misdemeanors.
Sanders, a critic of the state’s parole system for several years, said the new mandates passed by the board show that there is a problem.
"I think what you have for the first time is a very succinct acknowledgment … that there are major issues with the parole system in Arkansas, and I think they are trying to figure out how to fix the problem. I applaud their efforts," he said. "I’ve always maintained that there’s a philosophical problem, that there is a leadership problem and there is a policy problem."
Sanders said he believes those problems all predate the Legislature’s passage of Act 570 in 2010, a package of state prison reforms intended to ease overcrowding and slow rising costs. Act 570 provides for lesser sentences for some nonviolent offenders and mostly drug-related crimes. The law also makes some nonviolent offenders eligible for parole earlier, with electronic monitoring as a condition of early release in some cases.
"This has been something that has been festering for quite some time and we’ve known all along that parole doesn’t work," he said, adding that parolees should know that "when you leave jail … if you don’t keep your nose clean you’re going back and you’re not going to get a second, third, fourth or fifth chance."